Wyoming legislators are working through two bills that would lay the groundwork to study and potentially buy over a million acres of land and four million acres of mineral rights across the southern part of the state.
The 1,010,900 acres of land in question sits within six Wyoming counties: Lincoln, Uinta, Carbon, Albany, Laramie, and Sweetwater. Local officials are beginning to grapple with the potential risks and rewards of the deal.
In the state's announcement, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said this deal will have local benefits.
"I think it has the potential to provide some long-term benefit, not only to hunters [and] recreation, but really make this kind of our future corridor of development, of renewables, of our base industries," he said. "All those things that will probably be past our lifetime."
But the purchase could also cause problems at a county level. If it happened today, six counties would lose out on a collective $222,902 per year in property tax revenue at a minimum-a sum the state is currently figuring out a way to replace.
Dave Divis, the Sweetwater County assessor, said that's because state-owned lands are usually tax exempt. "If the classification on that land changed from active to exempt, if the state did own it, then at that point there would be a reduction in value in Sweetwater County," he said. Sweetwater County is home to the majority of the land in question.
Divis said Anadarko Petroleum currently owns most of the 690,000 acres but not all of it. The company pays about $139,000/year in property tax revenue, money necessary for local services. While it's not a ton, Divis said it is important. "I'm the assessor. So, we try and get every taxable dollar that we can," he said.
The legislature is well aware of the issue and believes it has a solution. Wyoming's House and Senate are considering bills to make sure counties get the money they expect, but not as a tax. Lawmakers are looking at something called a PILT, or payment in lieu of taxes, to fully replace the lost taxes.
Tom Crank, a state representative for Sweetwater, Uinta and Lincoln Counties, said that PILT sounds like a good deal. "The way it's written now there shouldn't be any implication, but everybody knows there will be.
At the end of the day, it's a change," he said. Right now, the federal government pays counties a PILT on the land it manages, like BLM land, given it would otherwise yield tax revenue.
"Counties are a little skeptical of just another PILT payment. So, I think there's some reason to be a little hesitant," Crank said. PILT payments don't have a great reputation in Wyoming. Gillette Rep. Scott Clem brought up reliability concerns for the payment. He raised the issue on the House floor.
"We all know that we're getting ripped off by the federal government, because it's pennies. Pennies in lieu of taxes is really what they're paying us. So, my concern is that: are we going to turn around and are we going to shortchange our counties?" he asked. "I hope we wouldn't do that. I guess the second thing is: could we afford as a state to pay these counties if we were really being fair to them?"
Lawmakers say mineral production should generate money right away on these lands. The bills as currently written would just use that new revenue to immediately pay for the PILT that goes to counties even above the rainy-day fund.
Lincoln County Commissioner Kent Connolly is very optimistic about the land purchase, but he said now would be a bad time to miss out on taxes. "The taxpayers do not need to take a loss on this. The economy's struggling as it is right now. We want to be kept whole," he said.
So, Connolly said counties should have a seat at the table to give their input on the deal. "Absolutely, we are going to want to be involved. That's a standard bearer of what we do and how we try to approach things as county commissioners as a whole," he said.
Jeremiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, said his number one priority is keeping the county whole. If the state does end up taking an exemption, he wants to make sure it's done right.
"Is there sufficient protection in the bill that there is revenue to cover that and not just cover it at a rate that is stagnant today, but corresponds with the value of that land over time?" he asked. On Wednesday, Speaker Pro Tempore Albert Sommers tried to make that public input official for counties with land at stake.
"Often times we have hearings down here in the capital city but I'd like to see at least one meeting by the SLIB [State Loan and Investment Board] out in the country where this land is," he said.
That amendment died, but another one arose today to require public meetings in affected counties. That was successful. The Senate has also passed its own change to require public meetings.
Rawlins Sen. Larry Hicks said state ownership could actually improve on reliable payments to counties and believes the issues will get sorted out. "I would guarantee you that everybody in this legislature is going to make sure that we hold the counties harmless of any tax implications associated with transferring from private to state ownership," he said.
This week, Cheyenne Rep. Bob Nicholas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said several other parties are seriously looking at the land purchase, too, so the timeline to close the deal is quick. Occidental Petroleum, which owns the land, wants it done as soon as this summer.
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